Fathers: Reflections by Daughters 
edited by Ursula Owen.
Virago, 224 pp., £5.50, November 1983, 9780860683940
Show More
Show More

This disturbing, even unpleasing book arose out of a reaction from which only a nerveless and protected minority are saved. As a child, the editor, Ursula Owen, found a photograph of her father which showed him in an attitude, a guise, that seemed to her ‘uncharacteristic’. It was not simply the fact that he was a German Jew and was photographed wearing the uniform of a colonel in the British Army: that somersault was circumstantial and could be explained away in a single sentence. (As a German-speaking industrialist, he was being sent back by the British Government to make a survey of Germany’s not quite ruined industrial potential.) No, the truly disturbing and dismaying quality of the photograph, and one which was to work underground and to result many years later in this book, was conveyed by the expression on Ursula Owen’s father’s face, one which had presumably never been seen there before. ‘After a while I realised what it was; my father looked vulnerable.’

Never been seen, or never been looked for? It must surely have been there. The experience that caused this German Jew eventually to be decked out in a British Army uniform could not have been completely subsumed into a benign and acceptable paternal gaze. Ursula Owen’s father, like all our fathers, was a character in history, with a history of his own, which inevitably preceded and superseded his daughter’s perception of him. And it is indeed less the function of the father that this book is about than the daughter’s perception of that function: it is this which makes the contributions to this work seem so ravenously unsatisfied, so inept, so bizarre, so wide of the mark. The book’s most strident message would seem to be a confused condemnation of patriarchy, of authoritarianism; radical feminism, or radical feminist lesbianism, or, in one case, radical feminist Marxist lesbianism, is proclaimed as the one true way in which women can survive the fact of having had fathers at all. But if, as Ursula Owen’s thoughtful introduction shows, the most disturbing fact about a father is his unsuspected vulnerability, is there not a thesis to be made out in favour of patriarchy, of authoritarianism? Is not the archetype, the stereotype, of rather more assistance than that terrifying fall into the quotidian, that revelation of fallibility, of weakness, that too often results in a daughter feeling shame, loss, disgust, rather than pride, fear, anger? The emotions in the latter category are energising, enabling. The fearful and reluctant compassion of a daughter, or a son, enfranchised from protection too early for her or his own good will always be experienced as a weakness.

Most of the women represented in this anthology confessed that in writing about their fathers they encountered confusion, unease, anxiety and a sense of betrayal. This reaction alone would seem to indicate that the relation between father and daughter is an area in which things can go anarchically wrong. If a daughter berates her mother or a mother her daughter, it is because each perceives instinctively what the other is up to: competition is the name of the game and the information thus acquired can be a useful point of reference in adult life. (If the information is ignored or lost, of course, the result can be equally disadvantageous.) But because a daughter is aware of a taboo existing in relation to a father – so far and no further – there is an area here in which a fatal mismanagement can occur, on either side. ‘And they made their father drink wine that night; and the first-born went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.’ There is only one account of incest in this volume, and the tight, wincing control with which the story is related is evidence of the horror of this taboo being broken. But by the same token many of these daughters seem to maintain a flaunting, teasing resentful relationship with their fathers, informing them when they change their lovers, or set up house with another woman, or depart more radically than usual from their fathers’ standards. In this respect the most profound comment comes from Grace Paley’s father. He is a retired Jewish doctor; he is 86 years old and bedridden; he has to have frequent recourse to his oxygen cylinder; and he asks her to read him a story. She does more than that; she writes him one, and it is a wry, graceful, skittish allegory, the kind which has made Grace Paley’s writing recognisably Grace Paley-ish.

My father took the oxygen tubes out of his nostrils and said, ‘Jokes. Jokes again ...’ ‘No, Pa,’ I said. ‘That’s it. She’s got a job. Forget it. She’s in that storefront working.’

This apparently satisfied Grace Paley as an explanation but was far from satisfying her father: ‘“How long will it be?” he asked. “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” ’

Of course, not every father or daughter reaches the heart of the matter in this way. Certain fathers are here as idols, as decoration. There are wedding photographs, but they are of daughters with their fathers, not their husbands. I have known women who acclaim their fathers as so perfect that no decent facsimile could possibly be found. This may be the smallest tragedy that can befall a daughter. The greatest would seem to me to be the resentment felt by more than one of these writers against the ‘masculine’ elements in their own natures, strikingly and, I think, damagingly described by Sara Maitland as ‘alive and well and rampaging inside me ... the wild Father inside my own self’. (I am not sure whether this is Jungian orthodoxy or a Freudian slip. I rather think it manages to be both.) This politicisation of one’s genetic disposition will lead to extremes of radical explanation that can surely never attain universal validity, no matter what mythological sources are pressed into service.

And I sense a sub-text of disappointment at what fathers did not do as much as at what they did, particularly when the fathers in question are described as handsome or charming. Indeed, in many of these accounts, the stance of the daughter seems curiously to be that of a little girl; with one exception, the mother is perceived as distant and hard-working, of marginal importance, perhaps difficult to please. The father and the daughter are allies; the daughter writes with understanding, and with sympathy, of the father’s plight. Not one of them seems to recognise that the father’s plight might have been occasioned by the very condition of fatherhood, a splitting of the bond, a rewriting of the original contract.

Of course there are terrible fathers, and very terrible they are too. One is incestuous, another, who publicly laments his wife’s frigidity, would like to be. One is mad, one gets disgracefully old and burdensome, one is entirely absent because he dies before the writer is born, one is jealous of his daughter’s intellectual independence, one deserts his wife for another woman. Only Doris Lessing and Julia O’Faolain describe their fathers as distinct and separate entities, endowing them with the dimensions of characters in history, allowing them a proper dignity, yet ensuring that they remain physically anonymous. Angela Carter comes nearest of all to easy affection and one accepts her independent and eccentric father, to whom she refers as ‘the old man’, as recognisable, possibly because she has written about him so well before or possibly because he might have come out of her own head. Happy the father whom the daughter seems able to invent ... And, I dare say, happy the daughter too. But those stubbornly realistic fathers who appear to do all the right things and yet whose daughters fly shrieking into the arms of another woman – who will speak for them?

Struggling with their desire to explain, the daughter-writers here display the eagerness of the encounter group, which, given the severity of the task, must be judged creditable. We are spared those accounts of prelapsarian childhoods which some women, and some men, or perhaps I should say some children, recount as eagerly as others recount their dreams. What gets left out is anything as old-fashioned as a sense of honour, for the confessional mode demands of one the least and vilest things. And if confession is good for the soul (but I wonder whether this is true) it cannot always be said to be good for the parent. And those repeated photographs of fathers with their little girls – all the daughters seem to have one – take us back again and again to the beginning. If this is the preferred image, what is to come after?

As a former daughter and as a reviewer of this book, I cannot honourably distance myself from these accounts without adding my own evidence, although I am extremely heavy-hearted at the prospect of doing so. My heavy-heartedness is compounded by the knowledge that this evidence will be of no service to anyone else, although I believe it to be consequent upon Ursula Owen’s introduction. My father, who has been dead for some years, was a man for whom I felt none of the standard daughterly emotions, either ancient or modern. An exile, modest, diffident, as honest as a child in a world of adult considerations, he seemed to me to compare unfavourably with the capricious, handsome, successful men of my mother’s family. These uncles, as tirelessly expansive as he was reticent, could not bother with a man whose only comment on his translated life was that he missed the smell of pine forests. It seemed to me that he was completely unhappy. This unhappiness did not recommend itself to me, for his vision of the world appeared unlovely when set beside the exciting games of favour, of pleasure, of cynical appraisal, to which the men of my mother’s family gave such vivid attention. My father’s entire morality – and it was entire – found an equivalence in the novels of Charles Dickens, with which he acquainted me at an early age: the uncles preferred me to read the gamesome tracts of George Bernard Shaw. At no time since my father’s death, which I watched, have I dreamt of him or longed for his advice or indeed consciously missed him. But now, strangely, I find my father, and his dreadful simplicity, encoded somewhere in my perceptions: I now feel as he felt. This may simply illustrate the fact that even beyond the reaches of conscious memory everything is retrievable. But it can be no accident that after reading only a few pages of Fathers, I turned instinctively to the shelves and took down Little Dorrit. It was there that I found what I wanted to read. Little Dorrit, writing to Arthur Clennam, reflects on the past:

Another difficulty that I have will seem very strange to you. It must seem very strange to anyone but me, and does even to me: I often feel the old sad pity for – I need not write the word – for him. Changed as he is, and inexpressibly blest and thankful as I am to know it, the old sorrowful feeling of compassion comes upon me sometimes with such strength that I want to put my arms round his neck, tell him how I love him, and cry a little on his breast. I should be glad after that, and proud and happy. But I know that I must not do this; that he would not like it ... and so I quiet myself. Yet in doing so, I struggle with the feeling that I have come to be at a distance from him; and that even in the midst of all the servants and attendants, he is deserted, and in want of me.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences